Beautiful Evidence

One excuse for not blogging over the last month was a couple of weeks spent in North America, first in and around New York and New Jersey, visiting my family, and then a stop in Montreal for the annual collaboration meeting for the EBEX CMB balloon project, which we expect to launch on its science mission from Antarctica in about a year (alas I will be most likely minding the fort back here in Britain rather than joining my adventurous colleagues in the frozen South).

But while in New York I got to attend my first proper art auction, one with a very scientific bent — Beautiful Evidence: The Library of Edward Tufte. Tufte is something of an “info-guru”; in a series of gorgeously produced books, he has talked about techniques for translating numbers and words into graphics. Although he’s got an over-strong aversion to computer graphics (and especially to powerpoint), much of his advice is right-on (and rarely heeded).

In the course of selling his books and giving regular, well-attended courses (and, latterly, working for the President), I expect that Tufte (who started out as a Professor of Statistics at Yale) must have amassed a reasonable nest egg, ploughed back into books, pamphlets, artwork and posters. The 127 or so lots cover everything from science and mathematics to dance and fine art.

I was most interested in the scientific books and manuscripts, and the wonderful thing about auctions is that you can play with — sorry, I mean inspect — the items on offer. I couldn’t resist:

Huygens' Cosmotheoros

That’s me, holding Christian Huygens’ Cosmotheoros from 1698. Amazingly, it was one of the few items not to make its reserve price, under $1000 — I could afford it that with only a little credit. But the most expensive item was an original of Galileo’s Sidereal Messenger, from which has sprung all of astronomy, most of physics, much of science, and indeed a lot of the society in which we live. Given that, $662,000 doesn’t seem unreasonable.

In between those two extremes was another item I was lucky enough to hold: Newton's Principia A third edition of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which went for $16,250. This is the final edition printed during Newton’s lifetime, albeit with edits by one Henry Pemberton, which became “the basis for all subsequent editions” (and was notable for having lost all references to Newton’s rival in the creation of the calculus, Leibnitz). Like Galileo’s, it is one of the founding texts of modern science. But scientific progress, all that “standing on the shoulders of giants” has the slightly strange effect that such books are often mentioned, but rarely read. It is easier to learn Newton’s laws from a twenty-first century textbook (not to mention wikipedia) than from the original sources. Unlike many other such books, the Principia remains almost entirely mathematically and factually correct, but written in such a style — using geometry and pictures instead of equations, not to mention being in Latin — that even modern physicists find it hard to follow. Partially to ameliorate this (and partially to prove that he was the one of the few people who could manage the task), the great astrophsysicist S. Chandrasekhar decided, in the early 1990s, to produce an edition of “Newton’s Principia for the Common Reader”, translating Newton’s geometry into modern equations. (Needless to say, the book makes impressive demands upon the supposed “common reader”.) We could all do worse than to spend some time trying to get into Newton’s head (or Chandra’s).